They both ended up in town one day, with Jeffrey working at Mr. Harrison’s general store and Albert doing some repairs in the shop. Spending the workday together was a gift they rarely experienced after transitioning back to civilian life. Jeffrey worked for Mr. Harrison most days. His bum leg wouldn’t allow him to get around as well as he used to so he couldn’t spend the days out in the fields with Albert when the boy got work with one of the farmers in Belvidere. Albert spent most of his time as a farmhand, but he found other things to do in the winter and the early spring between harvest and planting season. Mr. Harrison had asked Albert to come in that day and fix up some crates and shelves in the store.
Jeffrey and Albert enjoyed each other’s company while they worked. They would shoot looks at each other over customer’s shoulders and Albert liked to see how many jabs to Jeffrey’s ribs he could get in while Jeff restocked molasses. Mr. Harrison only caught them a few times and even though he told them to stop acting like schoolboys, he chuckled as he did. They had fun together, and both boys found themselves wishing for more days like this.
At the end of the day, Jeffrey and Albert prepared to go home. Outside, the rain that had started to drizzle down in the early afternoon began to pound against the roof of the store. Albert made his way out onto the porch and watched the rain start to make deep, muddy puddles in the dirt road. He felt the chilly mist kiss his cheeks as he leaned against the wooden column. Jeff walked out soon after and stood with Albert while he watched the rain.
“D’ya think we should try n’ wait it out?” Albert looked up at Jeff. Jeffrey watched the rain for a few more seconds before breaking out into one of his trademark grins.
“Nah.” He ran out into the rain, laughing with a glowing, boyish joy that Albert hadn’t seen in a long time. Jeffrey basked in the rain, splashing in the puddles and letting the drops run freely down his face. Albert stayed on the porch, watching his friend play in the rain, but Jeffrey wouldn’t stand for that. He ran up to Albert and shook the raindrops from his hair out in the boy’s face. Jeffrey quickly realized his mistake and took off down the road as Albert’s face screwed up with fury.
“Jeffrey N. Davis! You get your ass back here!” Jeffrey had decided for Albert that they would most certainly not be waiting out the downpour that day. Albert ran after Jeffrey in the rain, and the two boys laughed and pushed at each other as they ran towards home. They really were just boys again, maybe for the first time. The two of them splashed through the puddles and tried to see who could make the biggest splashes, not caring if the rain soaked through their shoes, which it did. Albert soared down the road, fast, little thing that he was, and Jeffrey kept up in the race to the house even with his limp.
They arrived at home a while later, soaked to the bones and covered in mud with the rain continuing to pour buckets over the little farm town. They were still laughing as they stumbled over each other into the house, but they sobered up considerably once inside. Albert and Jeff soon realized how cold and wet they both actually were. The chill began to settle across their skin and they suddenly were reminded of the fact that it was still early in the year, not the best time for a run in the rain. Albert went to the fireplace and began to start a fire while Jeff went to get blankets from the other room.
When Jeffrey got back, he found Albert crouched next to the now blazing fire trying to warm himself. Jeffrey peeled his sopping vest and shirt off and hung them in front of the fire. The boy sighed as he felt the warmth touch his skin, pricking across his chest and down to his fingers. He looked down at Albert, still in his soaking wet clothes and shivering even though he was inches from the fire. Albert looked miserable, like a sad dog that somebody had abandoned out in the rain. All the joy from earlier had drained from his body while he willed himself to dry off faster. Jeffrey knelt down next to his friend and placed a broad hand on his damp shoulder. The boy was drenched to the point where Jeff could nearly see his skin through the light shirt. Albert stared hard into the fire, jaw set, large drops of water snaking from his hair, down his cheeks, and dripping onto the floor.
“Hey,” Jeffrey said in a low voice. “C’mon, we gotta get ya outta these wet clothes. You’ll catch cold otherwise n’ you know you ain’t no fun when you’re sick.” Albert didn’t move but Jeff knew he had heard. Albert was a modest man and always liked his privacy, more out of necessity than anything else. Living with Jeffrey, it wasn’t always a problem. He trusted Jeff. He didn’t need to hide around him and keep secrets like he had back in the army. But sometimes it got worse. Jeff had learned to be patient on those days.
After a few moments of Jeffrey comfortingly stroking his knuckles along the hair just above Albert’s ear, the boy pursed his lips and turned towards Jeff. Albert knew his friend was right and that he’d feel warmer once he wasn’t covered in wet clothes but he was still reluctant. He hated how the days could change so fast without warning. The feeling of wrongness would hit Albert when he was least expecting it and he became like cracked glass on the verge of shattering. Just a moment ago, they had been running along the road and laughing without another care in the world. Now, it felt as though the world had come crashing down around him.
Albert undid the buttons of his vest and shirt one by one at an almost painful pace but left the shirt hanging on his shoulders, the effort of unbuttoning having suddenly drained his body of all energy. Jeffrey wrapped a blanket around Albert’s shoulders and slid the boy’s arms out his sleeves beneath the blanket. He rubbed his hands against Albert’s bare, frozen arms a bit before pulling the wet clothing from beneath the blanket, and Albert found himself giving Jeffrey a small yet grateful smile. Jeff’s kindness knew no bounds. He’d grown up a lot since their first meeting nearly four years ago, learned to do what he had to do even though it was hard, but he was still gentle with it.
Jeff slid out of his dirty trousers next, and Albert thankfully had less difficulty shedding his own as well. Their drawers were fortunate enough to have stayed mostly dry under their trousers. Jeffrey took the bundle of clothing piled on the floor and hung their socks, vests, shirts, and trousers over the fire to dry.
Jeff knelt in front of Albert again, knowing this last push would be the most difficult.
“Is that wet, too?” Jeffrey asked, pointing to a long piece of linen that bound the boy’s chest. Albert kept his arms wrapped around his chest with the blanket pulled tight and he visibly wilted.
“Um,” Albert hesitated. The truth of the matter was that the cloth probably was too damp to be comfortably left on, but Albert wasn’t terribly keen on taking it off just right now. His jaw clenched in a visible sign of agitation. Jeffrey slid his hand under the scratchy, wool blanket and ran his hand gently across Albert’s shoulder blades in an attempt to soothe him.
“It’s alright, ‘s probably not that bad anyways, jus’ uncomfortable is all--”
“Naw,” Albert’s low voice stopped Jeffrey. He was staring into the fire again, as though the flames could distance him from everything. “Should dry it. It’ll get rank if it’s damp like this too long.” Beneath the blanket, Albert’s hand moved to undo the cloth binding on his chest. Jeffrey helped him unwrap it from around his back. When the cloth came off, Albert breathed long and deep, though not entirely with relief. Jeffrey took the linen from Albert and hung it beside their clothes.
Albert continued to shiver, though he wasn’t sure it was all from the cold. Jeffrey sat behind Albert to try to warm him up, his long legs on either side of Albert’s, and he ran his own blanket over the boy’s hair to dry it, every few seconds switching to dry his own hair. When he finished, he pressed his chest to Albert’s back and hooked his chin over his shoulder. Jeffrey wrapped his arms around Albert’s waist, just below where Albert’s arms were wrapped around his own body. His thumbs stroked absentmindedly against the smooth skin of Albert’s sides.
Though painfully aware of every inch of contact-- his toes against the inside of Jeff’s ankles, their thighs pressed firmly together, his elbows resting lightly against Jeff’s arms, Jeff’s thumbs gently touching his ribs, their ears and cheeks just barely brushing-- Albert fought to relax in Jeff’s grasp. He sighed heavily again and leaned his head against Jeff’s while he felt the faint beating of Jeff’s heart on his back. Jeff pressed a kiss to Albert’s shoulder through the blanket and gave his own sigh.
“I love you.” The sound was barely audible over the crackling of the fire. There was a lot of meaning tied up in Jeffrey’s ‘I love you’ that night. It was ‘I’m proud of you’ and ‘You’re a good man’ and ‘I admire you’ and ‘I wish I could do more’ and everything that Jeff wanted to tell Albert. But in the end, all he said was ‘I love you’. And that was more than enough.
“I love you, too.” Albert finally let the tension melt from his body, and he settled more comfortably into Jeffrey’s arms. They sat together like that in front of the fire for a long time while they dried off and warmed up, content with each other’s presence. And if they each dozed off a bit, nobody needed to know. Dinner could wait.